It may be largely a Jewish invention, but the theater in New York has never run on a Jewish schedule. Jewish theater artists have often had to choose between keeping the Sabbath and building a career on the stage, where weekend performances are not just the norm, but the box office bread and butter.
Now comes 24/6, the first theater company in New York that will not require its members to rehearse or perform on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons.
The company offers its debut workshop performances this weekend at The Sixth Street Synagogue, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in the East Village, with “The Sabbath Variations: The Splendor of Space,” a collection of six short plays fittingly inspired by Abraham Joshua Heschel’s writings on the Sabbath.
The company was founded by three 20-something observant Jewish theater practitioners: Yoni Oppenheim, Avi Soroka and Jesse Freedman. All three have extensive backgrounds in theater; Freedman is a performance artist and magician who trained at the New School, while Oppenheim graduated from the NYU Tisch School of the Arts and Soroka has stage-managed productions all over the United States. Oppenheim and Soroka met at the Yeshiva University High School; they brought in Freedman partly because of his experience with a similar Sabbath-observant company in Baltimore, the Jewish Theatre Workshop, housed at the Jewish Community Center on Park Heights Avenue.
But while the Baltimore company, which is now in its sixth season, has presented a wide range of classic plays such as Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” and Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” 24/6 has dedicated itself, at least at the outset, to presenting works with Jewish themes.
Oppenheim told The Jewish Week that he and his co-founders started a series of salons last year to discuss a story in Heschel’s seminal book, “The Sabbath,” in which Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son, Rabbi Eleazar, hide in a cave after telling the Romans that only the unremitting study of Torah will produce eternal life; the two are ultimately brought by God to an appreciation of the Sabbath as the appropriate time for rest and reflection.
The salons became the springboard for almost two dozen theater artists, including actors, directors, and even a puppeteer, to craft their own contemporary responses to the story. These range from the tale of a Japanese salaryman who needs to be planted in the ground to keep from working himself to death, to a father-son story that takes place on the father’s deathbed as the son assails him for his selfishness, infidelity and inability to stop talking on his iPhone.
Not being able to rehearse or perform on the Sabbath typically puts theater artists at a distinct disadvantage in terms of honing their craft and finding opportunities to work. In unusual cases, producers have exempted actors from performing on the Sabbath; witness Dudu Fisher’s contract for “Les Miserables,” both on Broadway and in London’s West End, that excused him from Friday evening performances and Saturday matinees. The current Long Island production of “Jekyll and Hyde,” starring David Yudell, actually shutters its doors on the Sabbath to accommodate the star’s observance. But these are the exceptions rather than the rule.
Indeed, Soroka pointed out, when actors are first starting out, “they generally need to build their resume by working with little companies, and the hardest thing is to get your foot in the door with the first company.” In the highly competitive world of the theater, “We’re trying to create a place for observant Jewish actors to build a resume as reputable as that of non-observant Jews and non-Jews. At the same time, we’re giving Orthodox Jewish theater artists an opportunity to follow their passion.”
The inaugural production about the Sabbath, Freedman explained, “gives the company an opportunity to explore every nook and cranny of our mission.” Their dedication to Jewish observance will enrich the work, he insisted, since “strong convictions make great theater.”
By contrast, too many theaters in New York, he said, “embrace nihilism or the ideology of the month in order to get themselves noticed by being wild.” 24/6, by contrast, embodies the “creative tensions between the religious and secular world.”
Gerald Sorin, who directs the Jewish studies program at SUNY New Paltz, lamented that American Jewish identity is “too often reduced to pro-Israelism, Holocaustism, anti-anti-Semitism, political liberalism, or some combination thereof. These things alone without nourishment from the knowledge of — even if not the strict observance of — Jewish religion, cannot sustain Jewishness in America.”
He noted that theater once played a vital role in American Jewish life, during the heyday of the Second Avenue Yiddish stage. Through theater, Sorin said, observant Jews may be able to “create a niche for themselves in American culture, and get Jewish secularists to become part of their audience.” If so, “there is a greater chance for mutual understanding and some repair of the regressive fragmentation in the contemporary Jewish American community.”
One artist who is benefiting from 24/6 is playwright Ken Kaissar, the author of the play “If Not, Now,” about the father and son in the hospital room. Kaissar, who was born in Israel but grew up in Indianapolis, has penned plays about the Arab-Israeli conflict, contemporary Jewish identity and other Jewish themes. He said that his latest work “draws comparisons between the value of the temporal life and the value of the world to come.”
Kaissar, who identifies as a Sabbath-observant Conservative Jew, said that he is gratified to be involved with a company of “like-minded Jewish artists who connect to my work on a visceral level and are concerned with the same questions and ideas that I’m occupied with.” The new company “gives us another performance venue so that we don’t have to have that deal-breaking conversation about not being able to work on Friday night and Saturday.”
What will happen when Kaissar and the others try to find success in the larger world beyond 24/6? Kaissar said that he is not concerned, since he sees 24/6 as an “end in and of itself,” adding that “not all theater professionals are trying to get to Broadway or get to the movies.”
While Kaissar said that for the present, the company could do tours of JCCs and synagogues, he expressed the hope that in 20 years, 24/6 could “have a huge subscriber base” and grow into a major nonprofit company like Playwrights Horizons and the Manhattan Theatre Club.
In the meantime, Kaissar and his fellow artists will work toward greater acceptance and respect within the theatrical community for the needs of those who observe the Sabbath. “The traditional dark night for the theater is Monday night,” he said. “Why shouldn’t Friday night be the dark night?”
“The Sabbath Variations: The Splendor of Space” runs Saturday, Dec. 11 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 12 at 6 p.m. at The Sixth Street Community Synagogue (325 E. 6th St.) in the East Village. For reservations, email firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, number of tickets and date of performance. There is a suggested donation of $10 per ticket.